Written by: Heather Clemenceau
Artwork by: Melody Perez
Whether it’s conducted for horses, bison, wolf, or deer, aerial surveys usually precede a savage end for our free-roaming,wild, and migratory animals. It usually becomes apparent that a cull is being considered whenever an aerial survey is conducted. But the process of conducting aerial counts to justify a cull is profoundly flawed. The scientific evidence to support arguments against the horses just isn’t there. Counts require low flying and intensive and systematic coverage of the landscape that are more likely to motivate, and less likely to detect, horse escape behaviour. The anti-predator behaviour of the horse (and other prey animals such as deer) is characterized by grouping together and running to escape, which compounds observers’ ability to make accurate counts, as does aircraft altitude, weather conditions, season, vegetation, and animal mobility. At least one study of wild horse behaviour in New Zealand’s Kaimanawa Mountains has shown that aerial sampling, which is then extrapolated to the entire population, can be highly inaccurate and imprecise:
In addition, counts that are made only once a year for 2-3 days are not generally considered to be a robust form of wildlife management when compared to counts done 3 times a year, such as in the spring after what is often a harsh winter, after the foals are born, and before a capture is being considered. Reliable methods to estimate wild horse populations should be important to Alberta Environment & Parks (formerly Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development – ESRD) because otherwise they will continue to make programmatic decisions that aren’t supported by science. A single aerial census is not terribly useful since the horses are pretty scarce and elusive when spread out over 6 million acres, which results in a weak inference about horses that are neither abundant nor widespread in the Equine Zones. Not only is the aerial count slipshod because it is only one sample, E&P doesn’t know how many horses are too many. E&P allow the “Feral Horse Advisory Committee,” with representation from several stakeholder groups, such as oil and gas, forestry, cattle ranchers, capture permit holders and hunters, (groups with a vested interest in removing wild horses) input into culls.
By most accounts there are somewhere between 850-980 wild horses currently grazing a vast area close to six million acres in 6 equine zones in Alberta Canada. The cattle being grazed consist in numbers about 10 times the number of equids in the 6 zones.
It is falsely claimed by E&D that wild horses have no predators. These wild horses, like all other ungulates, do have natural predators. If not, why then would the E&P (ESRD) advertise on their website hunting and trapping licence for cougars, wolves and bears? It’s also falsely claimed by the Feral Horse Advisory Committee that horses compete with wildlife and cattle for forage. If so, how many skinny cattle come off the range each year? The government’s own study by R.E. Salter, who has a master’s degree in zoology – did not document forage or behavioural competition with either wildlife or domestic cattle. Studies in British Columbia showed that overgrazing and erosion were caused by too many cattle and not horses.
The New Zealand Study On Aerial Surveillance:
By the grace of (insert the deity of your choice), a cull was not held this year. The decision to cull any of these horses should not lie in the interpretation that they are feral rather than wild; feral is a human construct that serves only to stigmatize the horses.
You only have to look at these horses to see that they are almost evolving into a distinct breed, rather like the Canadian horse. They deserve heritage status and advocates should demand that “managing” these unique and iconic herds be conducted using a biological basis which should never include inputs from groups that seek to eliminate them.
There should be a ban on selling captured horses to slaughterhouses (in part because there is not six months worth of drug history on any of them) therefore those doing so should be heavily fined.
Minister Shannon Phillips
323 Legislature Building
10800 97 Avenue
Canada T5K 2B6
Phone: (780) 427-2391